It's 'World No Tobacco Day'!
'Catch 'em young' - is the mantra of most anti-tobacco awareness campaigns. Giving youngsters all the gory details of how tobacco intake can lead to dreaded diseases is easier compared to trying to convince unwilling adults to quit, say experts and counsellors.
"Youngsters especially in school are most vulnerable to smoking... being curious and under peer pressure they start as early as at 8-10 years," Sunitha Gupta, convenor of the Indian Cancer Society (ICS), told IANS.As May 31 is observed as World No Tobacco Day and Indian tobacco products are to come out with pictorial warnings, Gupta said anti-tobacco campaigners were hopeful that the "gory pictures of blackened lungs and other vivid warnings would be effective" on young minds.
According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India records about 800,000 tobacco deaths every year.
The institute recently carried out a survey of Delhi school children. It found that the average age of students taking to smoking was in the teens while many started to smoke as early as at eight.
"We work towards creating awareness - showing them videos, pictures - providing them information about effects of smoking like bad and dry skin, bad breath, that it could lead impotency - this we think is the best way of creating awareness early," Gupta said.
PC Bhatnagar, a public health specialist working with the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), said children were especially vulnerable to tobacco usage and diseases.
Until a few years ago, there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove the link between tobacco with some very deadly diseases. But today it is proven that consumption of tobacco in any form can lead to cancer of the lungs and mouth. It can also cause cardiovascular diseases and brain haemorrhage," Bhatnagar said.
To drive home its anti-tobacco messages, VHAI has launched radio advertisements as well. "Since youngsters these days listen to a lot of radio, we are broadcasting advertisements about the ill-effects of smoking on Radio Mirchi," Bhatnagar said.
Raman Sodhi, a practicing psychotherapist and student counsellor, feels that awareness about the ill-effects of tobacco should begin at school and home. "Kids usually start smoking just because they see their parents smoke or due to peer pressure. The mere liking for tobacco changes to an addiction over a period of time. Parents must talk to their children and kick the habit themselves if they want their kids to quit," said Sodhi, a student counsellor with Doon Public School, Paschim Vihar.
According to Dinesh Chandra Katiyar, a senior surgical oncologist with HealthCare Global, a Bangalore-based oncology care network, more and more youngsters are chewing tobacco products like 'pan masala' and 'kheni', a crude form of tobacco with chunna (lime) in rural areas and small towns. This is why intervention at a young age is essential.
"Around 30 percent of all cancers in India - estimated at 1.5 million - are head and neck cancers and result from only tobacco intake. Habits like chewing pan masala and kheni are on the rise among youngsters. The youngest patient I treated for neck cancer was just 14 years old. He too chewed tobacco," Katiyar said.
The early onset of cardiovascular diseases due to tobacco is another concern.
The most common cause of young age heart attacks is smoking. This has been proven, said Balbir Punj, senior consultant electro-physiology and interventional cardiology at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, Delhi.
Punj said he had seen a steady number of youngsters with heart ailments. They were usually smokers.
"In the past five years, I have seen young women who have taken up smoking come to me with heart-related problems," he said.
The best way out, Gupta said, was to "educate the youngsters".
(Shweta Srinivasan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)